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Shostakovich the enigma, Tchaikovsky the crowd-pleaser
Bradley Winterton
Tuesday,  Jan 2, 2018,16:33 (GMT+7)

Shostakovich the enigma, Tchaikovsky the crowd-pleaser

Bradley Winterton

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the great enigmas of classical music. He was the most celebrated composer of the Stalin era, but his music is almost invariably morose and darkly brooding. Was this because he was himself a clinically depressive, or was he trying to say things that the Stalinist tyranny wouldn’t allow him to say openly, or even at all?

Anyway, the HCMC Ballet and Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO) is certainly making a starkly contrasting program in pairing his Fifth Symphony with Tchaikovsky’s famous First Piano Concerto at the Saigon Opera House on January 9.

Tchaikovsky certainly had his own problems, his homosexuality in particular, but he was nonetheless a popular and largely sunny figure, if suspicious of criticism, on the musical scene. His relationship with the Russian emperor certainly had none of the tensions that Shostakovich was later to feel with Stalin and his cohorts.

Shostakovich’s 1937 symphony is one of his most popular, but it’s also been the subject of intense debate. The previous year Shostakovich had been officially criticized for “formalism”, in other words writing music on artistic principles, such as a concern with form, rather than political ones (what the government wanted). A year later he offered up the Fifth Symphony as an artist’s response to “just criticism”.

After the first performance both the public and the critics were enthusiastic, though the government-appointed critics were slightly suspicious as to why the audience was so wild in its response. In essence it would seem that the government liked it because it represented a bowing down to official censure, whereas the public adored it as what they saw as a representation of the people’s sorrows under Stalin’s iron rule.

The key issue concerned the last movement. This was a supposedly a shout of joy by the people at large, but those who saw Shostakovich as a disguised dissident saw it as essentially ironic euphoria. How conductors treat this finale is an invariable measure of their interpretation of the music as a whole. How Vietnamese conductor Le Phi will deal with it next week remains to be seen.

Crucial to all Shostakovich studies is the book Testimony, published in the U.S. in 1979 (Shostakovich died in 1975). This claims to be a record of conversations between the composer and his interviewer, an academic musicologist, and it shows Shostakovich to have been a lifelong dissident, albeit a secret one. The manuscript has never been made public, and is claimed to have been “lost”, and many people believe the author invented at least some of the material, even though Shostakovich was said to have added his signature to the first page of every chapter.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 presents no such problems. Its opening is so familiar that it’s been used both in a Monty Python sketch and at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi. Famous pianists have fallen over themselves to perform it. It was recorded five times by both Artur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter, and has been recorded over 12 times by Emil Gilels.

In Saigon’s performance next Tuesday it will be played by Vietnamese pianist Ho Thi The Van. This, all in all, will be a program that should please many different kinds of music enthusiasts.

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